Soon after Sir Roger Scruton was appointed to advise the UK’s Ministry of Housing as chair of the new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, certain Labour MPs accused him of being an anti-Semite. But there is more than a modicum of chutzpah in this charge.
The Labour Party itself stands credibly accused of anti-Semitism. The distinguished former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has denounced Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as an “anti-Semite” who “has given support to racists, terrorists, and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map.” Corbyn openly associates with terrorists who murder Jews. He has publicly described Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends.” The Iranian regime paid him to appear on a government television channel. And in 2016 he was photographed laying a wreath at the graves of members of the Black September terrorist organization that conducted the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. In the photograph, Corbyn stood next to the chief of the terrorist organization PFLP.
Corbyn’s Jew-hatred is a running sore in British politics and has caused deep divisions in his own party. Earlier this month London’s Metropolitan Police made public a criminal investigation into Labour Party anti-Semitism. It is reasonable to suppose that the putative discovery of a mote in Scruton’s eye serves to detract attention from the beam in Jeremy Corbyn’s.
A 2014 speech Scruton gave in Budapest is the sole exhibit for the Labour party’s prosecution. During this speech, Scruton noted in passing that some Jewish intellectuals took a dim view of nationalism after the hideous experience of World War II, and that some moved in the orbit of George Soros, the preeminent adversary of the new Hungarian nationalism as exemplified by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
In response, an outpouring of support from the conservative camp has defended Scruton as “Britain’s greatest living philosopher,” “one of the great intellects of our age,” and “Britain’s most famous living philosopher.” I should like to add my voice to Sir Roger’s defense, first as a Jew, and second as a harsh critic of his work (see, for example, my First Things review of his recent book on Wagner). I have no prior reason to defend Scruton, but I am revolted by the Labour party’s spurious charges of anti-Semitism that trivialize a matter of urgent importance.
The distinguished British journalist Melanie Phillips, who has written frequently and fiercely on the matter of Jew-hatred, skewered the problem deftly:
Sir Roger said in a speech: “Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire.” Cue claims of antisemitism. But here’s the whole passage from which those words have been taken:
“Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire. People in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century, and do not distinguish nationalism from the kind of national loyalty that I have defended in this talk. Moreover, as the world knows, indigenous antisemitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics, and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews.”
Sir Roger was actually explaining how nationalism came wrongly to be regarded as toxic by the architects of the European project and why Jews share that suspicion. Far from promoting antisemitism, Sir Roger was actually speaking against it. By radically decontextualising his words, his accusers reversed their meaning.
To Phillips’s rejoinder, I add an observation about the singular role George Soros plays in Hungarian politics. In left wing Jewish circles it is considered anti-Semitic to mention Soros’s political activities. That is false in general, but absurd in the Hungarian context. Soros is the world’s wealthiest Hungarian, and has spent over $400 million through his Open Society Foundation to influence Hungarian politics. Relative to Hungary’s GDP of just $100 billion, that amount is the equivalent of $60 billion in the United States. It is impossible to discuss Hungarian politics without mentioning this elephant in the parlor, and it is a matter of public record that virtually the whole of Hungary’s liberal intelligentsia has taken money from Soros. That includes Soros’s opponent Orbán, who went to Oxford twenty years ago on a Soros-backed scholarship.
As it happens, the relationship between Hungary’s Jews and Hungarian nationalism has moved beyond the terms in which Scruton framed the problem four years ago. The whole question of Hungarian Jews’ attitudes toward Hungarian nationalism has been superseded by a robust new alliance between Jewish nationalism—that is, Zionism—and Hungarian nationalism.
Hungary has become one of Israel’s best friends in Europe, aided by Orbán’s decades-long friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An ebullient Jewish life has revived in Budapest among traditionally-observant Jews as well as a large Israeli expatriate contingent. Hungary is now the safest European country for Jews. Orbán consults regularly with Budapest’s Orthodox rabbis, who report that their relationship with the government is excellent.
The State of Israel has become an inspiration to Hungarian nationalists, as I learned in discussions with Orbán and many of his advisers earlier this year. With a population similar to Hungary’s (8 million people), Israel has three times the GDP and a leading position in the sciences, entrepreneurship, and the arts, despite constant external threats. History, in a sense, has come full circle: The Davidic monarchy was an inspiration to the founders of the Hungarian kingdom 1,100 years ago, just as it was to all the nations of Europe. All nationalism in a sense is Jewish nationalism, I argued in a review of Yoram Hazony’s recent book on nationalism.
There is strong historic precedence for a confluence of Jewish and Hungarian aspirations. Modern Hungarian nationalism was born in the 1848 Revolution against Austrian rule. Thousands of Hungarian Jews fought as volunteers in the national army and Jewish communities offered extensive financial support. The revolutionary government granted Jews full citizenship and civil rights in 1849, but the emancipation was rescinded two weeks later after Russian troops allied with Austria crushed the national government. It was not restored until 1867.
Jewish life flourished in Hungary; nearly a quarter of Budapest’s population was Jewish. The prominence of Hungarian Jews in physics, mathematics, and music until the 1930s was preternatural. Hungary’s interwar nationalism after the truncation of the country was sadly anti-Semitic, and the survivors of the country’s once-great Jewish community for the most part looked at nationalism with trepidation.
Scruton is guiltless of Jew hatred, but one can fault him for ignoring one of the most remarkable political phenomena of our time, namely the burgeoning sympathy for the State of Israel among the newly-nationalist countries of Eastern Europe, including Hungary.
An old joke defines anti-Semitism as hating the Jews more than is absolutely necessary. One might define philo-Semitism as liking the Jews more than is absolutely necessary. By that standard, Scruton is no anti-Semite, but neither is he quite a philo-Semite. His view of the Jewish role in modern history is conventionally dismissive. In the same 2014 speech that occasioned the spurious charges of anti-Semitism, he wrote:
The Jews were a closed community, bound in a tight web of religious legalisms…Christ found himself in conflict with the legalism of his fellow Jews, and in broad sympathy with the idea of secular government – hence his famous words in the parable of the Tribute Money: render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. The Christian faith was shaped by St Paul for the use of communities within the Empire, who wanted only space to pursue their worship, and had no intention of challenging the secular powers. Hence ‘the powers that be are ordained of God' (Romans 13). And this idea of dual loyalty continued after Constantine, being endorsed by Pope Gelasius the First in the 6th century, in his doctrine of the two swords given to mankind for their government, that which guards the body politic, and that which guards the individual soul. It is this deep endorsement of secular law by the early Church that was responsible for the subsequent developments in Europe – through the Reformation and the Enlightenment – to the purely territorial law that prevails in the West today.
This is not inaccurate, but incomplete. It leaves out the inspiration that enabled the Visigothic, Merovingian, Anglo-Saxon, and Magyar monarchies to unite clans that spoke no national language and knew nothing of national identity. St. Gregory of Tours, St. Isidor of Seville, and others persuaded the monarchs who ruled over the detritus of the Roman Empire to embrace the Davidic example of a monarchy sanctioned by God. The Jews formed the first nation-state (no Greek of prominence argued that all the Greeks should unite under a single law and sovereign), and remain the “exemplar and paragon” of a people, as Franz Rosenzweig put it.
It seems odd that Scruton’s four-year-old speech in Budapest should cause controversy. The world has moved on. It is passé to fret about anti-Semitic strains in Hungarian nationalism. The new Hungarian nationalism is self-consciously philo-Semitic and eager to emulate the State of Israel. If God has a sense of humor, this is surely one of his better jests.
David P. Goldman is a columnist at Asia Times and a former senior editor of First Things.